Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sam Wineburg on "Contributing to the Field"

Sam Wineburg made his bones in the field of education by writing seminal articles and books on historical thinking. His most famous book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, has received a lot of attention here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in my forthcoming (Sept. 15th) Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. 

Lately, however, Wineburg has been publishing in venues that may not impress his superiors at Stanford University.  Rather than sharing his research with a small group of education professors who read peer-reviewed scholarly journals, he has chosen to write for teachers, publish short pieces in magazines, newspapers, and websites, design lesson plans for classroom use, and create YouTube videos.

He and his team are reaching more people than ever.

With this in mind, Wineburg wonders what he should write on his 2012-2013 annual report. (This is a report in which professors summarize the work they have done over the course of any given academic year).  Do lesson plans, document readers, digital products for high school teachers, and instructional videos "count" for scholarship at Stanford?

Here is a taste of Wineburg's reflection:

Don’t get me wrong. I have not given up on verified knowledge, scientific replication, peer review, and rigorous statistical tests. I still publish in specialized journals and help my graduate students do so. I serve on two editorial boards, attend academic conferences, and dutifully fill out the ballot for the officers of my professional association. What’s changed is that I’ve stopped lying to myself.

I no longer believe that the scholarly enterprise of education has much to do with educational betterment. I no longer believe that when I publish articles in journals with minuscule circulations I am contributing to the field—if by “field” we mean the thousands of well-meaning individuals who go to work each day in places called schools.

He concludes:

I am not suggesting that every academic follow my accidental journey and take to the Web with digital wares. What I am suggesting is that it’s time for those of us in the academy to stop confusing the field of education with a set of limited-circulation journals. We can no longer afford to tell ourselves that our work is done once we’ve corrected our galleys and submitted our final reports. We have important things to say but have forgotten how—and to whom—to say them.

So go finish that revise-and-resubmit. But let’s not fool ourselves. Confusing impact factor with real-world impact may enhance our annual reviews, but—in the long term—may lead to our own extinction. 

Preach it, Sam!